Maine Rising with Alyssa Thompson: ‘If I can’t change it, who will?’

This is the first in a series for Beacon that features the work of youth activists and changemakers across the state, where readers can get to know the next generation working to create a better Maine. They run for office and call for climate justice. They fight for immigrant, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ rights. They build coalitions across the state. They ensure that Maine–the oldest and whitest state in the nation–can be a vibrant, just, thriving home for everyone.

The series begins with Alyssa Thompson, an 18-year-old from Monmouth, Maine. I hope that you find inspiration and hope in her words.

Photo by Elizabeth Thompson

What is your story?

I think that I was born to be an activist. When I was nine years old, in the fourth grade, I staged my first protest. We moved to new house that was totally infested with ants. I loved them, but my dad didn’t; so he decided to spray pesticides. But I found this to be unjust and morally wrong because the ants were there first! So I wrote “save the ants” on a piece of paper, taped it to a stick I found in the woods, stood at the end of our dead end dirt road, and protested.

Seven years later, I went to my first real protest: Maine Students for Climate Justice’s Generation Rising event. I felt really inspired. For the first time, I was surrounded by people who were all concerned by the same issues. I didn’t have to explain that climate change is a real thing or that we should care about corporations manipulating workers or taking advantage of frontline communities.

I then found about the Youth Activism Gathering. After that, one opportunity turned into another, and here I am today!

What do you work on now?

I’m working on a few things. I work for Pine Tree Youth Organizing doing grant writing and event coordination. I’m working on our annual event, the Youth Activism Gathering. The YAG is a sort of like “Activism 101” for young people. We try to be very intersectional, and we cover a wide variety of topics pertaining to social justice, grassroots organizing, American Sign Language, and teaching kids how to be self-sufficient.

I’m also working on Betsy Sweet’s campaign for Governor doing social media and collecting qualifying contributions. I’m doing referendum work for Maine People’s Alliance. I do work with MYAN [Maine Youth Action Network], and we organized a big conference at the end of January.

What has it been like working on Betsy Sweet’s gubernatorial campaign?

It’s not easy, but it’s a lot of fun. What I like about Betsy is that she wants this to be everybody’s campaign. This is all of us working together, building community, and trying to change the way that politics are done.

It’s been hard getting the contributions. Some people are against Clean Elections due to some of it being through tax dollars. Some people don’t know what it means. But, at the end of the day, most people agree that everybody deserves a chance to at least be on the ballot. Many people will donate because they think she deserves as much of a chance as anyone else. It’s tough but exhiliaring.

What drew you to Sweet’s campaign?

The reason why I want to get into politics is because, through time, we’ve developed this great disconnect between the people and the politicians. When our country was founded, there weren’t supposed to be career politicians. They had other jobs–doctors, lawyers. Today, we see people who get into office who have no idea what it’s like to be a wage worker or a member of the middle class. They sit in immense privilege, and I don’t think that’s how politics should be.

What I see in Betsy is a generous and kind-hearted woman who’s sick of the status quo. She wants to change something. She’s running as a Clean Elections candidate, which I agree with because she’s not able to accept any PAC money. I see a candidate who won’t be bought out by corporate lobbyists and will actually do what’s best for her constituents. My goal is to have her be our first woman governor.

What are the most important policies that our next governor can implement?

First, I agree with Besty that we need to incentivize more young people to stay in Maine and raise their families here. The distribution of our population is far more older folks, and it’s detrimental to our economy. Betsy offers public service for education. This plan will provide free tuition for a year of service and staying in Maine for a certain number of years. I think it would be a huge incentive, and it would help a lot of kids who can’t afford college or don’t think it’s a good option for them. It could incentivize people to get a lot of higher education and stay here and boost our economy.

We have hundreds and hundreds of miles of coastline. I’d like to see offshore wind farms. It’s a resource that we’re not at all utilizing. Instead of proposals for pipelines, I’d like to see a plan to research solar farms and wind in Maine. It would create jobs as well as provide alternative energy.

I would also like to see resource sharing among schools, so sharing taxes and distributing state and federal funding evenly so kids in poor areas have the same opportunities as kids in wealthier areas.

Will you ever run for office?

I’m planning to move to Lewiston in the spring, which is where I want to run. I’d want to run for School Board or City Council first. I’d like to get my nursing degree before all of that. Maybe I will wait until I get my Political Science degree. I’m excited to run, but I want to have the skill set and the knowledge to be a good elected official before I take that next step. I plan on getting into an Emerge program soon.

How do you see the intersection between working on Sweet’s campaign and the other organizing work that you do?

It’s a balancing act. I am the youngest person on the Betsy Sweet team. That can be tough in some ways because it’s like I’m representing all of the youth. There are intersections though. Betsy has a lot of great plans for what she wants to do. It ties in with my youth work. She wants to incentivize young people to stay in Maine. We do a lot of stuff on college campuses and outreach that way. We’re getting ready to hire a couple of interns. It flows in naturally.

How do you involve young people with climate work?

In Maine, we have a very unique connection to the environment. Our businesses are very dependent on it: fisherman, snow plowing, farming. We have a deep connection to our environment that a lot of other states don’t feel any more. We need to amplify that and show people that [climate change] is impacting us. It’s a real problem.

A lot of businesses are struggling in Maine due to the cost of energy. We need to address this as well. Even though this technology is new, it’s worth investing in and it will be cheaper in the long run. It’s not just a hardship on our local economy.

We need to be reminding people that this is the way life should be, and that it is threatened by climate change. It’s about inspiring people to get out to the polls and vote for politicians who address this issue instead of proposing pipelines.

What has been most effective about talking to people about climate in Maine?

I find that personal stories work really well. If somebody doesn’t believe in climate change or doesn’t view it as a prominent issue or have a “people not planet “ attitude, it’s about not letting that conversation take a divisive turn. Try to find something that you have in common with them–some short of shared goal or vision. Maybe they also grew up hunting or fishing. You can use that story to bring people in and show them why climate justice is important and finding that connection.

Why do you devote your time to climate?

I’m a big believer in intersectionality. I like the phrase climate justice because it’s not just about the environment but talking about how Indigenous, poor communities, and communities of color are impacted. It addresses racism and classism and colonialism. The big reason is I feel like time is ticking, and we have very little time to start turning things in the right direction. I think all issues are worthwhile, and our oppression is bound. But if we don’t address these environmental concerns, we won’t have a planet to live on. Nothing will matter if we’re all fighting for resources and dying because the planet can no longer sustain us.

What gives you hope?

Millennials give me hope. I think that it’s a lot more common within our generation to be open to talking about these ideas. Nobody likes confrontation, so when you disagree, it’s awkward and uncomfortable. Older people don’t talk about who they vote for or petition or campaigns. It’s commonplace among millennials to do so.

We’re also seeing so many people who are really fed up with how things are run. Once this younger generation starts running for office and getting into positions of power, we’ll start seeing so much change for the better. That’s been my experience with young people.

I believe in the good of humanity, and I think that kindness and love will prevail. Even though it’s really scary, historically–when we’ve seen great waves of social change–there has been pushback and opposition from the other side. Even though that can be really scary, in the end, that change has to come about.

What gives you pause or makes you rethink this work?

There have been so many times where I’ve been upset. It’s really disheartening doing this work. I just wish that I could give up and quit. But I’m in too deep, and I care too much. I empathize with these causes. I’d feel guilty if I wasn’t doing this work. I and everyone are responsible for being active in making the world what they want it to be. I want to live in a better world. If I can’t change it, who will?

I know that you’ve done a lot of direct action in the past. What do you see as the role of DA in your work?

Direct action is one of the more important pieces of the puzzle. It’s very useful because these forces of oppression and these systems that are in place interrupt people’s lives all the time. People in the lower class don’t just get to forget their troubles. They are thinking, “How am I going to pay the rent?” It’s the same with other forms of privilege.

Direct action is useful because it grabs people’s attention and makes them uncomfortable and interrupts their day in the same way that forces of oppression do for frontline communities. It pisses people off, but so does oppression. Feel the way that we feel.

How can people support or get involved with what you’re doing?

The best way to get involved is just to look at your set of skills, and then figure out how you can use them. If you’re a skilled writer, write an editorial or letter to your senator. If you’re good at public speaking, reach out to organizations, and try and get involved. Find a candidate you agree with, and start volunteering for them. There are ways to get involved.

Pine Tree Youth Organizing connects new organizers with opportunities and mentorship, so that is a good resource too. And we’re always looking for Youth Activism Gathering organizers!

It’s a case-by-case scenario. You just got to do it. Once I had that first connection through the YAG and PTYO, everything just fell into place.

Email me if you want to get involved with any of these things!

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